Confessions of a Self-Publisher


I’ll go back to relating thoughts on being an omnivorous reader again after this detour, but want to share how I feel now that I’ve published a book of my own.

I had a couple of motivations for writing The Novel Life Of Coral Ambrose. I needed a new artistic outlet, and I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write an entire book.

There was also a near-death experience that I suppose I really should write about one day but I always find reasons to postpone doing it. In a nutshell, I was gravely ill and in the course of grieving about the very real possibility of dying I was disturbed first that I hadn’t finished rearing my children, and second that I’d wanted to write a book some day.

Although I wasn’t motivated by thoughts of fame and riches at all, during the process of writing variations on those themes did pop into my mind fairly often. One minute I’d be trying to work out a scene between Coral and Phil and the next I’d be imagining what I’d tell Oprah when she was interviewing me for the Oprah Book Club. Then I’d wonder what I was going to wear and calculate how much weight I needed to lose before going on television. Not that Oprah would care.

Early in the writing process a friend suggested I read Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life, by the fascinating Anne Lamott. This woman is about as quotable as anybody alive today, and if I could find my copy of the book I’d be able to tell you exactly what she said, but I loaned it to someone, never to be seen again. What I wanted to quote is where she explains what happens right after you publish a book, which is nothing. You think there will be glowing reviews springing up in all the papers and magazines and the phone will ring off the hook (I’m winging it here, I can’t remember exactly how she worded it but I believe I’m getting the heart of it right), but instead it’s a day like any other. Maybe your friends say, oh, did you finish that thing you were working on?

So I knew that. I knew going into it that’s how it would go. I also knew I wouldn’t find a publisher because I have a friend in the industry who warned me I would have a better chance of finding a rare coin at a laundromat.

But I’ll tell you what I wanted.

I wanted a literary agent to pull my query out of her stack of 200 she gets every day and actually read the book. I wanted her to read it, love it, and hand carry it to one of her publisher friends who would phone me immediately.

If I’m going to be a dreamer why not dream big? A meeting would be set up in New York. I love New York. They would put me up in a hotel while we hammered out a few minor editorial changes.

Let’s dream bigger! They would send advance copies to various successful authors in the New York area for jacket quotes. They would love the book so much they’d all want to have lunch with me and welcome me to the club of authors. We would exchange bon mots, probably at a round table at The Algonquin. They would give me pointers about handling signings.

Each of us has some crazy dream about something that will never happen. For some people it’s playing for their favorite team. Others want to win an Academy Award. For me it would be sitting around having lunch with authors who are welcoming me into an imaginary successful authors club.

Based on little hints I’ve picked up here and there, not only will this never happen to me but it’s not possible at all because apparently a lot of authors are too introverted or standoffish or regard one another as competition, so a welcoming authors club will never exist. Or so it appears.

Which brings us back to reality.

After publication a whole bunch of my friends bought the book and many of them recommended it to their friends, which was heartwarming. But after that -- self-publishing the actual book is just the beginning of a whole new job I never wanted: learning how to get the word out.

I didn’t even like selling Girl Scout cookies.

First was the frightening part about ringing the doorbell of a complete stranger. My mother would be standing at the curb shooing me. Go on!

Then I needed to ask the person, would you please buy my cookies? I felt very pathetic, a beggar with a tin cup. Please, lady? Please?

To enjoy sales you have to look at it like a game. Your opponents are the customers. Your goal is to get them to change their minds to believe what you want them to believe, namely, that they need to own what you want them to own.

There are some personalities that thrive with this kind of challenge. I’m not one of them.

Selling self-published books is extra hard in 2015 because there are so many books of varying quality available that the chance of someone simply finding my book and trusting it’s going to be good enough to buy based on genre or anything like that is nil. Even good reviews on webpages aren’t all that useful when it’s one of thirty reviews that week.

Various websites have suggestions for marketing books but if the post was written in, say, 2012, it’s obsolete. It seems that many opportunities have been crushed under the sheer volume of self-published books. For example, I don’t think social media works as well as it once did. My Twitter feed is filled with people trying to promote self-published books. Reading it is like sitting on a train watching billboards flash by.

Bookstores don’t want you to hold a reading, especially if your book was published by CreateSpace, which is a division of their arch-nemesis Amazon.

I’m going to keep plugging away at publicity (there are still some tricks up my sleeve), but I do have to remind myself why I wrote the book in the first place: I wanted to write a good book before I died. Mission accomplished -- I wrote the book, and based on the reviews and the fact that people keep asking me when I’m going to write another, people think it’s a good one.

I’m just really glad I’m not trying to make a living at this.

My near-fatal illness left me with a drive to not waste any of the time I have left. It had become an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of wasting the remains of my life, especially after my children were grown.

Writing a book took away that feeling of regret. I accomplished something real.

BONNIE BALLOU'S

Thoughts on a half century of omnivorous reading